Two topics dominated comment and discussion at the Nov. 28 City Council meeting: the arrest of Devon Reid for exercising his First Amendment rights to gather signatures on a petition so he could run for a City office, and the introduction of an ordinance to make Evanston a “welcoming city.” Both dealt with police overreach and undue interference, and the two were related in the minds of several of the speakers and Council members.
The idea of asking local agencies to devote their resources to federal civil immigration (in most cases, deportation) efforts is repugnant. We applaud Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl for unearthing the 2008 resolution for review and strengthening and the aldermen for their ready acceptance of this welcoming City ordinance and look forward to its easy passage on Dec. 12.
During the Citizen Comment period, many residents spoke passionately about their support for the ordinance, and some urged Council to adopt policies and measures that would make Evanston a safe and protected place for all its residents. Some aldermen acknowledged that need.
Also at the Nov. 28 meeting, many community members expressed sentiments ranging from disbelief to outrage at the police officers’ questioning of Mr. Reid while he was seeking signatures on a nominating petition and his being handcuffed and charged with failure to provide his birth date.
Earlier that morning, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz sent a letter to Mr. Reid, apologizing for the incident; the officers involved were immediately placed on administrative leave; and the City decided to dismiss the charges. Members of City Council said they were appalled and shocked.
What seems clear is that many Council members have been presented information about similar incidents at Human Services Committee meetings. As an example, in May, a young black male was chased down by police officers for not having a bike light at night. He was arrested, placed in handcuffs, and stowed in the back of a police car. Ultimately, he received a citation for not having a required light.
According to the account given by both police officers on the scene, upon finally being released, he simply rolled his bike away with tears streaming down his face and a ticket clutched in his sweaty palm. The citation may have already been taken care of. How long, though, will the humiliating memories persist?
The bike-light incident resulted in an excoriation at Council meetings and online of an alderman who suggested removing the bike-light requirement from the City code if it was being used only as a pretext to stop black people. The alderman later withdrew his request, saying it was intended to draw attention to the issue of police officers’ escalating minor issues into handcuffing and arresting youth. Regrettably, most people remember that request, not the police escalation that prompted it.
The problem with Evanston police escalation tactics is not only with the Devon Reids of the City, who have a network of aldermen in their cell phones or a Facebook presence, but also with the young bike riders and other youth cuffed and detained for minor infractions.
In our Oct. 6 editorial, we referred to the bike-light incident and to findings by Dr. Gilo Kwesi Logan, who was hired to assess, among other things, police/community relations, particularly with respect to minority communities. He found “There exists a general misunderstanding, disconnection, mistrust, and lack of discourse between the department and member groups within the community. … Diverse groups in the Evanston community hold deeply held views that racism, or at least racial bias, is the root cause of mistrust between EPD and communities of color. … People of color, particularly African Americans, reported seeing or having disproportionally more negative experiences with the police.”
We realize that we ask the nearly impossible of our police department: keep the peace, hold offenders accountable, and protect our residents. Conflicts and confrontations are bound to occur. Training and sensitivity on the part of the police department are crucial, but what is also needed are changes in climate and culture.
Overly aggressive police action in dealing with what should be minor instances generates mistrust and fear in some parts of the community.
Fear and mistrust are insidious. Once they permeate the soul of a person or a community, they can manifest themselves in small things. People are jittery, wary of each other, disinclined to trust. These issues are things we as a community must address, before they, like so much else in this brave new world, get their tentacles in and become a new normal.
Humiliation can last a lifetime and set a person on a course of distrust and exile from our civil community. Any one of us who has been humiliated by an authority figure might well feel the urge to lash out – or simply check out.
Addressing fear, distrust, discomfort, and humiliation is more than a matter of policy change. It is a matter of climate change – for all of us, not just the police department.
We must not be afraid of that challenge. We must welcome it.